Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling

Art by Jonny Duddle

…So, maybe bathrooms aren’t that important in the Harry Potter series, as they don’t feature at all in the third book. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) feels different in a number of ways from the first two books. The basic elements of a Harry Potter story are here — the eruption of magic into the Dursley’s ultra-mundane lives at the start, leading to a spectacular magical-form-of-transport escape (this time the Knight Bus), a visit to Diagon Alley (the Harry Potter equivalent of James Bond’s visits to Q before a mission), a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher first encountered outside of Hogwarts, Quidditch, Quidditch, and more damned Quidditch (too much Quidditch in this one), a dark character assumed to be the cause of the main evil but who turns out not to be (previously Snape, then Malfoy, now Sirius Black), an underground chamber (or at least one reached by an underground tunnel) where we get a long exposition before a showdown with the actual evil… But some of the other elements I listed as part of the Harry Potter “formula” in my entry on The Chamber of Secrets are getting a lot more tenuous. The magical item unknowingly acquired in Diagon Alley that turns out to drive the rest of the plot, here, is Ron’s rat. He’s been around for a lot longer, of course, but his oddity (his long-livedness) gets highlighted in Diagon Alley for the first time. Ron and Harry don’t, as they do in the last two books, venture into the Forbidden Forest to meet a dangerous-but-neutral magical creature and gain a vital clue, but Sirius Black has been living in the Forbidden Forest for most of the novel; he just comes out to meet them. And the usual resolution, where Harry pulls a magical object out of an item of clothing — a pocket, a hat — might in this case be fulfilled by Peter Pettigrew, who emerges from Ron’s pocket.

Cliff Wright cover

Perhaps most different to the previous two books is that this is the first in the series (the only one, I think) not to feature a personal appearance by Voldemort (or even a fragment of him). This easily might not have worked — normally, you’d expect each book in a series to up the stakes each time — but actually it allows for a much more satisfying and complex resolution, as it can’t all be explained away as the actions of pure evil, but of human beings in all their complexity of flaws, failures, and virtues. By not featuring Voldemort, the third Harry Potter book actually takes the series up a notch in terms of moral and emotional complexity.

I do think that this book — which is half again as long as either of the previous two — feels a bit baggy in the middle, with a lot less focus, and a few scenes on the soap-opera-ish side that add a little colour to the characters but nothing to the plot. Plus, it’s particularly Quidditchy, and Quidditch — whose matches are, in a way, echoes of the main story’s Eucatastrophic endings, with Harry snatching the Snitch out of nowhere to win the game, just as he pulls a Philosopher’s Stone from his pocket, or the Sword of Gryffindor from a hat — feel a bit manipulative in story terms, as it’s all about Harry feeling bad (when his team loses) or good (when he wins), but without gaining any knowledge or interesting experience en route. (Except for the usual mid-match attempts on his life, I suppose.)

But the ending, as I say, is the best so far — helped no end by being a double ending, as the final events are replayed by Harry and Hermione’s use of the Time-Turner, giving them a much-needed nudge towards another (but not wholly) happy ending. That’s satisfying on a plot level (and it’s done even better in the film, where they have a lot more fun with it), but there’s also deeper emotional satisfaction in Harry’s finding he’s gained a godfather and thinking at one point he’s seen his father.

Brian Selznick cover

There’s a lot more of a personal connection between Harry and the past events that drive this book, too. There’s always the connection of Harry wanting to get his own back on Voldemort for killing his parents, of course, but here we learn a lot more about Harry’s father and his friends at school, and how one of them betrayed him, and how another took the blame. We also learn that Harry’s father and his friends weren’t entirely “good”, as they played a prank on a young Severus Snape (who, in this book, is at his most venomous and mean) that could have killed him. For added poignance, we get to witness a moment whose significance it’s easy to miss, as it’s not underlined in the text, as Harry finds himself in a position very similar to that of Voldemort on the fateful night when his parents died. Voldemort wanted to kill baby Harry, but Lily Potter stood in the way; now, we see Harry wanting to kill Sirius Black (who he thinks is responsible for his parents’ death), only to have Crookshanks the cat leap in the way. It’s like a test of how different Harry is from Voldemort — or, maybe, it’s a living flashback. And Harry’s been having plenty of those, thanks to the Dementors bringing back in vivid detail his mother’s screams on the night she died.

Olly Moss ebook cover

I said in my entry about The Chamber of Secrets that memory and memory-related magic were important to the series, and it’s even more true in this book. Rowling finds all sorts of ways of bringing the past alive as a living force. It can be in characters who were thought to be dead coming back to life (Peter Pettigrew), Harry’s Dementor-driven flashbacks (traumatic memory as a source of weakness), or the counter to them, where positive memories can power a Patronus (memory as a source of strength). Harry and Hermione’s use of the Time-Turner to revisit their own close past and make a few changes is like another version of the series’ use of relived memories (the Mirror of Erised in Stone, Tom Riddle’s diary in Chamber, and Dumbledore’s Pensieve later on). Meanwhile, the malleability of memories and stories about the past are highlighted by Peter Pettigrew’s faking his own death to frame Sirius, but also perhaps in this book’s other memory-themed thread, Divination, where prophecies are a sort of memory of the future, and just as deceptive as memories of the past. (And just as powerful in their ability to reshape the world, too, as comes clear in a later book, where we learn Voldemort’s motive in seeking Harry that night — and thus bringing about his own demise — was down to his believing one particular prophecy.)

Recovering — and correcting — memories and stories of the past, in this book, are part of Harry’s role as a truth-seeker, which can lead not just to a sense of the truth revealed but to a righting of wrongs. Given the chance to kill Pettigrew, the man who brought about his parents’ death, Harry decides to hand him over so his story can be told, meaning not only will Pettigrew get his proper punishment, but Sirius Black can be absolved. As Dumbledore says, in one of his wise summings up at the end of the book:

“Didn’t make any difference?” said Dumbledore quietly. “It made all the difference in the world, Harry. You helped uncover the truth. You saved an innocent man from a terrible fate.”

Kazu Kibuishi cover

And it’s no surprise that a book with such a title as The Prisoner of Azkaban is full of prisons both literal and metaphorical, as well as escapes from them. There’s Harry’s escape from the Dursleys in a burst of magic (and a certain amount of wild-talent psychokinesis, too, which makes this now-teen resemble Stephen King’s Carrie, in a way — both get locked in cupboards by their parent/guardians, after all). There’s Sirius’s escape from Azkaban. There’s Harry’s being told to stay at the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley till he’s released by the arrival of the Weasley clan. There’s Buckbeak’s escape from a sentence of death. There’s Pettigrew’s escape from a self-imposed imprisonment as Ron’s rat. Hogwarts becomes a sort of prison for Harry when he doesn’t have the signed form to let him visit Hogsmeade — until he escapes with the aid of his sneaky magical possessions, the Cloak of Invisibility and the Marauder’s Map. Hermione gets herself trapped in a self-imposed prison of too much schoolwork, till she sets herself free by admitting how much she’s expecting of herself (which is also part of the theme of mental illness that runs through the book, including Lupin’s self-injuring when he struggles with his wolf-side, Harry’s traumatic flashbacks, Sirius Black’s purported “madness”, and Hagrid’s despair at Buckbeak’s fate). Harry learns to escape a little from his own past, too, by learning to counter the traumatic memories the Dementors bring out in him. (And I can’t help likening Harry’s fainting fits before the dark-hooded Dementors to a wounded Frodo’s wooziness before the Nazgûl in Lord of the Rings.)

Along with this theme of imprisonment and freedom is one of punishment and retribution. As usual, it’s introduced in comic form in the Dursley section, with Harry having to pretend he goes to school at “St Brutus’s Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys”, which leads Aunt Marge to ask if he’s “beaten often”. Uncle Vernon, meanwhile, on hearing the Muggle-friendly version of Sirius Black’s supposed atrocities, asks:

“When will they learn,” said Uncle Vernon, pounding the table with his large purple fist, “that hanging’s the only way to deal with these people?”

Back cover of UK paperback, art by Cliff Wright

While the series has had dark moments from the start, they become less comic and more oppressive in The Prisoner of Azkaban, with its decidedly Gothic tinges of trauma, betrayal, depression, and madness. This is all part of the series’, and its main characters’, growing up. (Their entry into adolescence — the start of their transformation from childhood to adulthood — is perhaps heralded by the four key figures from the past, Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, all being animagi, wizards who can transform themselves.) Harry is more outspoken against the Dursleys, and experiences a killing hatred in this book, something I don’t feel would fit in the previous two. Perhaps the ultimate sign of his growing up is that he at one point mistakes himself for his own father. Hermione, meanwhile, learns not to expect so much of herself, and indulges in a little uncharacteristic rule-breaking. Ron, um… Well, Ron learns to get over the loss of his rat.

(And it’s nice to see that, as Harry’s Patronus is a stag, he’s joining other YA protagonists covered on this blog — Stag Boy, A Monster Calls — in allying with the horned god Cernunnos.)

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

cover illustration by Jim Kay

Thirteen-year-old Conor’s mother is undergoing chemotherapy. She’s been through it before, and both she and he talk as if this were just one more round of treatments, horrible to go through, but necessary to get her better again. Only, the treatments aren’t working and she’s not getting better. Meanwhile, Conor is being bullied at school, something he endures so stoically it’s almost as if he welcomes the punishment, and also has to put up with being looked after by his grandmother, a busy, efficient and scrupulously tidy woman not used to having to deal with a troubled boy.

And Conor is troubled. He’s wilfully isolated at school and hopeless about the future. He knows, deep down, what’s going to happen to his mother, and knows it will mean he’ll either have to live with his grandmother, whom he hates, or his divorced father, who’s far more interested in the new family he’s started in America.

And then, to top it all, Conor is visited by a monster. Woken in the darkest hour from a recurring nightmare, he sees the yew tree from the graveyard at the back of his house form itself into a monster and come to stand outside his bedroom window.

It’s not there to frighten him, though. It’s there to help him. Only, not in an easy or obvious way:

Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley… I will come to you again on further nights… And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before… And when I have finished my three stories… you will tell me a fourth… and it will be the truth.

The stories the monster tells are far from comforting. And after each telling, Conor finds himself landed with some massive inconvenience to have to deal with, like a floor covered in twigs or yew-berries. (It gets much worse later on.)

A Monster Calls coverI found A Monster Calls an utterly compelling read. Patrick Ness (working from an idea from author Siobhan Dowd) follows Conor into some pretty dark, uncomfortable situations, and part of the compulsion in reading is to see how Ness deals with what is, after all, an awful situation. It’s obvious there’s no magic waiting in the wings to cure Conor’s mother. So how can it be turned into a story that ends in anything but despair?

Most of the trouble in the story is caused by the fact that nobody can come out and admit that Conor’s mother is dying — not Conor, not his mother, not any of the largely well-meaning but helpless adults — but then again, who could? It is, then, ultimately a story about having to face a cold, brutal, and unavoidable truth when you’re the only person who can force yourself to face it.

There’s something a little Pan’s Labyrinth about A Monster Calls. In both, we have a young protagonist — thirteen years old in the case of Conor O’Malley, about eleven in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Ofelia — visited by a monster on three significant occasions, each time with a challenge (or, in Conor’s case, a story, which are all pretty challenging). Both Conor and Ofelia are in similar situations, each having only one proper parent — and a sick one, at that — whose sickness puts their child in the care of a less-than-satisfactory replacement (Conor’s grandmother, Ofelia’s stepfather). In both, there’s a feeling that not only is the child protagonist on the verge of adolescence, but are also about to be abruptly exposed, with no parental protection, to a grim and uncaring world.

In mixing very fairy-tale like fantasy with brutal reality, both Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls seem to be asking what use the happily-ever-after promises of fairy tales can be in such an un-fairy-tale-like world that contains things like fascism and cancer. In both cases, though, stories are seen as vital ways of learning to adjust to that reality, never as a means of escape or retreat from it.

Early on in A Monster Calls, the monster says:

Stories are the wildest things of all… Stories chase and bite and hunt.

And I found myself thinking, at first, this was just the sort of thing writers like to write about their art, but was it merely self-congratulatory rhetoric and hand-waving sorcery, or was it true?

A Monster Calls, US coverCertainly, a story like this — a story nobody forced me to read, and which I happily and hungrily devoured on my own — can take you into some pretty uncomfortable situations, ones you wouldn’t leap into cold. So, reading A Monster Calls really did feel, at times, like riding a wild rapid, being jolted and knocked at every bend, with the very real-seeming threat of being completely thrown.

What kept me reading was, I suppose, the promise the monster made — ‘And when I have finished my three stories… you will tell me a fourth… and it will be the truth.’ — and my wanting to know what the fourth story, that truth, would or even could be. It was the very uncompromising nature of the book, and how it dealt with the situation of a young teen faced with his mother’s terminal illness, that compelled me to read. Had Patrick Ness at any point shied from being as unflinching as he was, I might easily have lost faith in the book. As it was, I think the result was spot on.

One thing I was glad to note was how the monster introduced himself:

I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!

Good to see the Deer-antlered One is still plying his weird, wild trade with Britain’s youth!

Stag Boy by William Rayner

Stag Boy, cover art by Michael Heslop

Stag-men of various sorts have been popping up on this site from time to time, from the antler-wearing shaman of Robin of Sherwood, to Herne the Hunter in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, or the bothersome creature of imagination and sexuality that intrudes upon the narrator’s life in Patricia McKillip’s Stepping Out of the Shadows. In William Rayner’s Stag Boy (first published in 1972), fifteen-year-old Jim Hooper returns to the farm he grew up in to convalesce after life in nearby Wolverhampton begins to affect his health. There, he finds his childhood friend Mary Rawle being courted by Edward Blake, two years older, richer, and far more worldly than Jim, as well as being ‘tall and strongly made, a good rugger player and a first-rate horseman.’ Jim can’t help but feel trapped by the boy-ness of his own adolescent body:

‘Then he looked down at his whitening knuckles, the narrowness of his wrists, and felt a choking anger at being shut up in such a poor thing of a body. He was overtaken by a longing so enormous it shook him physically… His spirit, if it could only get free, he felt sure would be as strong and wild as a hawk.’

An idle wish made in a ruined witch’s cottage leads him to find an ancient, stag-horned helmet which, when worn, allows Jim to share in the life of the ‘black stag’ — a creature of local repute, and the prize target of the hunt (to which both Mary Rawle and Edward Blake belong). While he’s one with the stag, Jim can lend it his intelligence, meaning it can out-think the hunt instead of just trying to out-run them; and being with the stag plugs Jim into the natural power and dignity of this king-animal’s physicality, which rubs off on him as his own body starts to mature and he gains in confidence.

At first, Mary’s not interested in Jim. To her, he’s part of the past, a relic of her childhood and of the closed-in, dead-end world of ‘the moor and the woods’. Edward makes her feel grown-up, and seems like the gateway to the adult life she’s always dreamed of living, one of:

‘parties and dances… famous people, amusing people, rich people, and something new and exciting would happen every day.’

But Jim brings the black stag to stand outside her window at night, tempting her to touch it, even ride it. At first she resists:

‘I don’t want strange things in my life… I don’t want my life to be different… It’s like stepping out of a lighted room into the dark.’

‘How much more comfortable it was when you had the right dreams, the ones that people understood and sympathised with.’ But she can’t ignore the wonder of a stag of such power and dignity and gentleness that lets her ride it, or Jim’s uncanny connection with it. At this point, Jim and Mary’s relationship becomes a world of its own, a secret that binds the two of them, and goes beyond her dreams of ‘parties and dances’ to something that mixes physicality and vulnerability, intimacy and meaning:

‘They were timid, too much aware of other people’s opinions and of their own youth and ignorance. Only in their wordless journeys through the dark did all worries and embarrassment fall away, leaving them free and happy, and innocent.’

But the stag’s animal nature threatens to unbalance Jim. That strength and nobility can veer into arrogance and an animal sexuality Jim has to fight to control. And now it’s the stag that calls Jim when it needs him, not the other way round, and its need is desperate. The hunt, fed up of hearing about this ‘proud, mettlesome, outrageous beast’ parading itself openly through populated towns, bringing traffic to a standstill and running rings round them whenever they chase it, is intent on bagging this creature before the season’s over. And what will happen if Jim is joined to it when it’s killed?

Part of the strength of this short YA novel comes from how naked the central metaphor is. Contact with the stag connects Jim with his own burgeoning masculinity (it’s significant that his father is dead) and adolescent sexuality. It teaches him the natural confidence and strength he ought to feel, but can also at times be a wild ride with forces that will not be tamed, or contained, or made civilised. Jim has to learn how to set the limit, how to be fully human not merely an animal, before he’s overtaken.

Although William Rayner’s sympathies are obviously with the black stag in its conflict with the hunt, by the end of the book, when it’s obvious Jim has to separate himself from the influence of the stag, the hunt takes its place as part of the natural order of things, particularly when contrasted to what Rayner sees as even more degenerate ways of taming nature. The hunt is ‘the ritual that should attend [the stag’s] death’, as it means death with dignity, and this is contrasted with the artificial, constricted life of battery hens and, beyond that, human lives in cities with their:

‘…endless mazes of streets, the houses like cages, that world of hutches and batteries and stunted lives.’

‘To deny nature — that was the worst sin, the sin against life’ — but, in the end, to live as a human being, Jim must civilise the more powerful natural impulses. A balance has to be found against the force of male adolescence, and so of course it’s Mary, finally, who redeems him, despite being told ‘This is not a thing for women.’

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilber

Like The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and The Owl Service, Stag Boy is another YA novel from the 60s and early 70s that explores the clash between modernity and tradition, nature and civility, by having normal, vulnerable teenagers trying to adjust to themselves and their burgeoning adolescence, while facing forces of folklore, myth, and the supernatural. And it’s a good mix.

I can’t find out much about William Rayner, other than that he was born in 1929. Stag Boy came out in hardback (in 1972) and paperback (1976), both with the same cover by Mike Heslop (who also did my favourite cover for The Dark is Rising). And, if you’re looking at that cover and thinking, ‘Isn’t that…?’, well, the answer is yes, it is. Heslop used a photo of David Bowie as a reference. (One more influence by Bowie on 1970s YA.)